The Prisoner's Dilemma Facing Online Publishers

With the endless stream of announcements of publisher investments in social media, video production, gaming, and other content sources, it's almost impossible to determine where one publisher ends and another begins. Why are publishers competing on sheer tonnage, instead of focusing on quality and singularity?

Oh right, the long tail. Publishers need proprietary content and in-house bloggers, and podcasts of today's news, and video archives, and mobile-only features, and 2.0esque mashups, and engaging games because their competitors are (or are rumored to be) fanning out all over the Internet, in order to squeeze audience out of every nook in the media landscape. Because media variety is what their audience wants.

But isn't what consumers want online a function in part of its source? You can point to a hundred examples where consumers are flocking to new content as evidence of the long tail at work. But the inherent assumption is that would be just as popular if it were, or that would have as many rabidly loyal viewers if carried a Comedy Central MotherLoad logo at the bottom of the viewing pane. Fox Interactive has placed a $600 million bet that they would; I am firmly within the camp that they wouldn't.

What we're facing now is a classical prisoner's dilemma--publishers are ensnared because their rivals are acquiring and launching and investing and expanding, so in turn they're succumbing to competitive pressure, and calling it opportunity: opportunity to engender loyalty in new ways, to better position themselves for the influx of ad dollars diverted from TV and magazines, to stay ahead of the tech curve because today's cutting edge is tomorrow's mainstream.

It's all easy to justify, but there's something other than sheer unmitigated upside at play in this industry. The game theory on the prisoner's dilemma hinges on the assumption that parties weighing competitive decisions will put their own best interests ahead of the best interests of their industry overall. For example, Publisher A and Publisher B are both considering launching wireless video. Terms with the carrier make it expensive to produce, impossible to recoup through other means, with no guaranteed payoff. But Publisher A cannot weigh the option independently; he must consider what B (with the same options) will do. If B invests, A should also invest in order to protect his market position. If B doesn't invest, A's best choice is still to invest, in order to steal share from A. So A invests. B goes through the same reasoning, and eventually also invests.

If A and B thought of industry profitability, and not competitive pressure, first, they would turn down more of these "opportunities." Sure, investment fuels growth. "More is better" is a far cry from rational experimentation, yet it has become a prevailing sentiment among media companies, due largely to competitive forces.

But competitive pressure saps profitability. Sometimes it's blatantly irrational, like the employee pricing wars among U.S. automakers. But it's more nefarious when it comes disguised as "opportunity," convincing decision-makers with forked tongue that it's a worthwhile project even if (especially if) rivals don't participate.

No macro event in business is unprecedented, this scenario included. From 1997-2001, online retailers played the same game with every price-slashing gimmick they could conjure, all in a frenzy to secure customers, however high the cost to them, and however low the value of the customers. The result? I got a snazzy pair of Rudy Project sunglasses for $15 from a Web site I never returned to, while thousands of people lost their plum jobs, and thousands more their retirement savings.

Another example: TV advertising. Marketers buy TV to protect share of market and share of voice. But what if an entire category stopped? Wouldn't the playing field remain level while marketing expenses could shrink by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars? How much advertising is simply to drown out someone else's advertising?

This may be happening already. Increasingly frequent announcements of specific cuts--no upfront spending, no Super Bowl advertising--are as much a strategic budgeting issue as they are a tactical salvo, signaling category leaders' intention to the industry to wean themselves off inefficient competitive spending (and inviting rivals to join in while stopping short of collusion). Couple this with fringe brands who are able to publicly announce a wholesale rejection of TV--like SABMiller Brewing's Foster's brand--and I think we're seeing evidence of a prison break in process.

Think I'm blowing smoke? In 1971, tobacco companies were banned from TV advertising. Considered then to have taken a body blow, the group did see their 1971 revenues trail off by $221 million. But the ban hamstrung the TV networks equally. During the same period they lost an uncannily similar $220 million in ad revenues from cigarette manufacturers. Big Tobacco profits held steady. In subsequent years, tobacco companies regained their revenue momentum and vaulted into unprecedented profitability.

There are a few lessons here for publishers:

1. It's OK for your competitors to get it wrong. You're not obligated to keep step with them when they do.

2. First-to-market only pays dividends when the market has high switching costs or network effects. Mobile video, podcasting, and most other content explosions have neither. Let someone else test them out, make the vendors more efficient and less expensive, and educate the market--before you needlessly raise the cost of doing business in your category.

3. Remain appreciative of irony. As you consider all the platforms and media you can integrate in the name of expanded advertising inventory, play close attention to your marketer customers who may be tunneling a little further out of their prisoners' dilemma every day. Are they learning to thrive through less TV, or preparing for a future with less advertising?